Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah’s Commission from the Lord
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
We have been following the story of how God’s people rebelled against Him, were taken into exile, and then brought back to the Promised Land. During these years, God spoke to His people through the prophets. The last seventeen books of the Old Testament contain the writings of these prophets, the first of whom was Isaiah.
September 11, 2001, is a date marked forever in American history. On a cloudless morning in New York City, two hijacked aircraft plowed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Within hours of the tragedy, the media were asking Christian leaders: Where is God in this? Is this a judgment on America? Is this the end of the world?
God has not given us the answer to these questions, so across the country pastors searched the Scriptures as we tried to discern how best to apply the Word of God to this extraordinary event. It was different for the prophets. They stood in the counsel of God and received His Word directly. They knew what God was doing and were able to say, “Thus says the Lord.”
Growing Casual toward God
Isaiah, one of the best-known prophets, spoke the Word of God over a period of more than sixty years. His ministry spanned the reigns of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Isaiah 1:1).
In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah was given a vision of God that shaped his life and ministry. Uzziah ruled in Jerusalem for fifty-two years, and during that time, the nation enjoyed a remarkable period of prosperity. This generated a feeling of confidence among God’s people, and as their confidence grew, they became increasingly casual toward God.
Vast crowds pressed into the temple, offering their sacrifices and observing the feasts and festivals. But their religion made little difference to their lives. The temple that was once filled with God’s glory had become a mere symbol of traditional values. Far from being pleased by this religious activity, God saw it as an obnoxious “trampling of my courts” (1:12). The great issue in Isaiah’s time was that people had lost sight of the holiness of God.
A Vision of the Lord
Isaiah had already been preaching for some years when God spoke to him in a vision: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1).
What does God look like? Isaiah tells us: “[He was] high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). It is as if he were saying, “God revealed Himself to me, but I could not look at His face. All I can tell you is that He was high and lifted up. All I could see was the end of His robe.”
God’s brilliance is overwhelming. Moses could not look directly at the brightness of His glory, he could only describe what lay beneath God’s feet: “Under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (Exodus 24:10).
Then Isaiah heard angelic creatures calling out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3). If you want to give emphasis to a statement, you can underline it, put it in italics, or use a bold typeface. You could also give something emphasis by saying it twice, as Jesus did when He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you…” (John 3:3).
There is only one truth in the Bible that is given a triple emphasis, and that is the holiness of God. The Bible never says that God is “wrath, wrath, wrath,” or even that God is “love, love, love.” But it does say that God is “holy, holy, holy.” The holiness of God is so foundational to who God is, that if we do not grasp His holiness, we do not know Him as He is.
The Angels Who Couldn’t Bear to Look
If we ask “What is holiness?” it is rather like asking “What is fire?” The best way to understand fire is by observing its effect, and the best way to understand the holiness of God is by observing what happens when God comes near.
You would think that angels who inhabit heaven would be comfortable in the immediate presence of God, but Isaiah saw that even the angels covered their faces when God came near.
Why would they do that? These angels hadn’t sinned as we have. They have nothing to be ashamed of. Their whole lives are spent in serving God. The angels cover their faces because they are creatures, overawed in the presence of their Creator. Even if you lived a perfect life and then entered the presence of God, you would still shrink back in awe and wonder as a creature before the glory of your Creator.
Coming Apart at the Seams
When God came near, the temple shook and was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:4). Isaiah said, “Woe to me!… I am ruined!” (6:5 NIV). The word ruined literally means coming apart at the seams. If someone is very competent or successful, we sometimes say, “He or she has got it all together.” Isaiah experienced the opposite. When he saw God, he fell apart.
Isaiah was one of the most respected people of his time. He was known, and no doubt celebrated, for his marvelous ministry. If he were around today, thousands would be crowding into conferences to hear him speak, and millions would be following him on Twitter. But in the presence of God he could only say, “Woe is me.” The holiness of God makes even the best people feel ruined.
As a prophet, Isaiah’s lips were the tools of his ministry. Speech was his spiritual gift, but in the presence of God, he found that even his greatest gift had to be cleansed: “I am a man of unclean lips,” he said (6:5). When you grasp the holiness of God, you will see that what needs to be cleansed is not just the worst of you, but the best of you as well.
Touched by the Mercy of God
After a momentary glimpse of the glory of God, Isaiah was plunged into darkness as smoke filled the temple. He was conscious of the presence of God, but God was hidden from his view. Then the foundations of the temple began to shake. It must have been absolutely terrifying!
Then, as Isaiah peered into the smoke, he saw one of the angels flying toward him with a live coal in his hand taken from the altar. The angel pressed the hot coal onto Isaiah’s mouth: “Behold, this has touched your lips,” he said. “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
The altar was the place where sacrifices were offered. So when the coal was brought from the altar to Isaiah, God’s provision for sin was applied personally to him. And notice that it was applied to the place where Isaiah was most deeply aware of his own need. Isaiah had confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips,” and now the angel of God said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away.”
Having discovered the grace of God in this deep and personal way, Isaiah had a new readiness to serve the Lord. When God said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (6:8). Isaiah responded, “Here I am! Send me” (6:8). So God sent Isaiah.
It was as if God said, “You go, Isaiah, because you’ve understood who I am, and you know what sin is, and you have experienced My grace.” Filled with a new sense of the privilege of serving God, Isaiah went out to make Him known.
Isaiah’s encounter with God points us to the coming of Jesus Christ. John tells us that “Isaiah… saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). The Father and the Son share the same glory (John 17:5). The Holy One, whose glory Isaiah had seen, was placed on the altar of the cross and He became the sacrifice for our sins.
As Isaiah was surrounded by darkness in the temple, so Jesus was plunged into darkness on the cross (Matthew 27:45). As the foundations of the temple shook when the presence of God came down, so the earth shook and the rocks split when Jesus laid down His life (Matthew 27:51). The earth trembled when Christ bore the sins of the world and the Father poured out His judgment on the Son.
Jesus died so that people like us who are unraveled by the holiness of God may be touched and healed by His grace. In Jesus Christ, God draws near and says, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
God is holy, holy, holy. His holiness is foundational to His character. In Isaiah’s day thousands of people crowded into the temple, but they had no experience of the God they claimed to worship. Eventually this kind of worship becomes boring. But if you think God is boring, you have never encountered the God of the Bible.
Sin is an offense against a holy God, and an atonement is needed. Without it, sinners would be ruined in His presence. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus, God’s Son, satisfied the judgment of a holy God, by becoming the sacrifice that atoned for all our sins.
When you discover the awesome holiness of God, then, like Isaiah, you will begin to appreciate the wonder of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. And you will feel that your greatest privilege in life is to serve this awesome, glorious, holy God.
- What does it mean to “grow casual” toward God? Have you seen any of this in your own life?
- What is holiness? How would you explain the holiness of God to someone else?
- How would you know whether or not you have grasped the holiness of God? Do you think you have? Why or why not?
- What is the most striking thing to you about Isaiah’s encounter with God?
- Can you think of an area in your life that most needs to be cleansed? The Spirit of God brings the grace that flows from Jesus’ sacrifice right over to where you are, and touches you so that your sin is atoned for and your guilt taken away.